Britain’s Shame: Drug Deaths Increase Again

This week saw the Office for National Statistics publish new figures on drug-related deaths in England and Wales for 2021, showing that 4,859 people died from drug poisoning last year compared to 4,561 people in 2020. Drug-related deaths have risen by 85% since 2012 and this marks the ninth consecutive year that drug related deaths have gone up.

Just a week ago the same figures for Scotland were released, showing that 1,330 people lost their lives to drugs in 2021.

These figures would put Great Britain, one of Europe’s largest economies, right at the top of a ‘list of shame’ when it comes to drug-related deaths.

Almost half of those deaths in England and Wales involved opiates (2,219), with cocaine related deaths rising by over 8% to 840. The figures show that males were twice as likely to die from drugs as females. With regards to age the highest number of deaths came from people who were born in the 1970’s (age groups 45-49, and 40-44).

The government has promised more investment in drug treatment services, following the publication of their drugs strategy ‘From Harm To Hope’ last year to the tune of £780m over the next three years.

However, uncertainty of increased, long term funding for treatment will be a major concern to many drug services and the local authorities who commission them. This investment follows over a decade of cuts to drug treatment services and is unlikely to bring funding back to 2010 levels, when deaths were much lower as well.

Decades of rhetoric from policy makers about who is soft and hard on drug policy hasn’t saved lives. It’s merely peddled stigma and pushed some of the most vulnerable people in our society to the fringes. It is those people who need the support and access to drug treatment services and the hand of compassion and care extended.

Charlie Mack, Chief Executive of social justice charity Cranstoun, whose drug treatment services all see rates below the national average said: “These figures demonstrate the need for more measures to be taken to reduce this tragic figure.

“But these are not figures, these are people’s lives. People with families and friends who will never get a chance to see them again. It is stopping that loss which drives us.”

Community treatment services, commissioned by local councils, can be one of the only ways in which some people who use drugs access any form of health services. Investment in treatment and an emphasis on outreach to people who need support is key if the country is to reverse this tragic trend of rising drug-related deaths.

There is a lot more that could be done within existing budgets to join up public and third sector services, make earlier interventions with people who use drugs and maybe at a higher risk of death by drugs, which could not only reduce deaths.

Measures which can feasibly be extended include diversionary schemes (diverting people away from criminal outcomes for possession offences), more training and access to harm reduction tools (like the life-saving opioid antidote Naloxone) and embedding substance use as a health issue first and foremost, and not a criminal one.

Equally, measures which have reversed drug related deaths in other parts of the world need to be considered as a way to stop people dying and promote harm reduction. Overdose Prevention Centres, of which there are over 200 in many countries across the world including Switzerland, Germany and the USA are an undoubtedly proven way of doing just this.

These safe spaces where people can go and use drugs, with clean equipment, supervision and access to support should they want it have overseen millions of injections around the globe, and nobody has ever lost their life in one.

The Scottish Government have made clear their intentions to seek to open one of these sites, but claim that there are legislative changes required at UK level to allow them to operate an OPC.

The Labour MSP, Paul Sweeney recently introduced a bill into the Scottish Parliament which seeks to introduce Overdose Prevention Centres into the country now, he said:

“The efficacy of Overdose Prevention Centres is indisputable – we just need to look at international examples, and the data from the unofficial Glasgow pilot to see how effective they are at saving lives. In Glasgow we supervised over 900 injections, reversed 9 overdoses and saved 8 lives.

“The fact of the matter is that the war on drugs has failed. We criminalise people for addiction issues that stem from trauma, poverty and deprivation, and sadly in many cases it culminates years later in an entirely preventable drug related death.

“That’s why I have introduced a Bill to the Scottish Parliament that seeks to license OPCs, because we know that they not only save lives but are often the first step towards recovery.”

There is a long way to go if the country is to turn the tide on drug-related deaths, but measures like OPCs are going to be critical to begin to reduce thousands of people needlessly dying each year from drugs.

This, coupled with more unified public services, greater outreach and interventions to support people into local drug support services and ensuring that a range of treatment options are available to the people who need them is at the heart of how this crisis has to be tackled. With Britain in a deep drug death crisis, funding continuing to dry up due to a severe and worsening cost of living crisis that will hit the poorest most, immediate action must be taken to ensure that this country shakes our drug shame.

Jamie Scott is the Head of Communications at Social Justice charity Cranstoun, Tweets @JScott1996